Raids Don’t Keep Tunnel City From Humming Underground
Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
The authorities on Thursday presented the results of a raid in Tijuana: bricks of marijuana and a smuggling tunnel into California.
By DAMIEN CAVE
Published: December 1, 2011
TIJUANA, Mexico — Squatting and sweating inside the latest drug tunnel found here in this Pacific border city, it was easy to understand the amazement expressed by Mexican and American officials. This one was a stunner.
A motorized cart on metal rails ensured quick passage.
The tunnel ran for almost half a mile, with wooden planks holding off the earth on all sides. Energy-saving light bulbs illuminated the route. A motorized cart on metal rails ensured quick passage, while a steel elevator hidden beneath the floor tiles in a warehouse made the 40-foot descent to the tunnel’s entrance feel like the slow drop into an unregulated mine shaft.
And yet, here is the simple fact obscured by superlatives like “the most elaborate” and “the most sophisticated,” which officials seem to lather on each new find.
Tunnels are Tijuana. They have become an inevitable, always-under-construction or always-operating part of city life, as entrenched as cheap pharmacies and strip clubs.
Residents now shrug them off. “If you have a lot of money, you can do anything,” said Blanca Samaniego, 36, as she walked by the warehouse where Mexican officials unveiled the tunnel on Wednesday. “It will never change. It will never stop.”
The ground beneath her neighborhood in the hills — near the airport and the upgraded, shimmering border fence patrolled 24/7 by American agents — has been punched full of holes for years. Almost every kind of building has been used to hide a logistical operation that is as much about the American taste for a high as it is about the low-down removal of dirt.
Just a few weeks ago, below a more rudimentary warehouse nearby, the authorities found a different tunnel with an elaborate ventilation system. A few blocks from that, there sits an empty flophouse, where thick concrete now caps a passageway discovered by the authorities last year. Farther east, residents note a tunnel found in 2008, and just past the next major intersection, there are two more: one under a small home and the other below a bodega across from a factory.
Other tunnels have been found downtown, near the main border crossing. Wherever there is a border fence climbing high, there seems to have been an attempt to burrow below, usually to a parking lot in California where drugs can be hauled through a manhole cover, or to a business that almost looks legitimate.
In the latest case, the tunnel ran to Hernandez Produce Warehouse, a fruit and vegetable company in California whose only product seemed to be green and best when smoked.
Luis Ituarte, 69, an artist who runs a gallery here called La Casa del Túnel — where a tunnel was found about decade ago — said that Tijuana officials would be smart to move beyond publicizing their subterranean finds and then shutting them down. He argued that Tijuana should capitalize on its historic identity as a city that has been serving up vice since 1907, when President Porfirio Díaz legalized gambling, or 1920, when the United States made alcohol illegal.
“Las Vegas, Tijuana and Havana were all built by the same kind of people,” Mr. Ituarte said. “Only Vegas has taken on its bad reputation.”
Not that this is the direction things are heading. The mayor here recently rejected demands from cultural groups asking to take over La Ocho, a notorious prison that had been decommissioned.
Mexican Army officials, during a tour of this week’s elaborate tunnel, mostly focused on the triumph of the discovery.
“These are achievements that increase public security,” said Gen. Gilberto Landeros, standing at the tunnel entrance as local reporters took snapshots of one another in front of the long, dim hole. “We’re pounding at the economy of narcotrafficking.”
At the very least, he had a lot of marijuana to point to. Hefty bricks of the stuff, wrapped tightly in orange and green plastic, surrounded him when he announced the discovery of the tunnel inside the empty warehouse here in Tijuana. The total haul, from both sides and a truck driven from the site in San Diego, was 32.4 tons, with a street value of about $65 million — a new record for a tunnel-related seizure, according to American officials.
Harder to see, unmentioned, but easy to imagine: how many tons moved across before that load was found.
The evidence around the tunnel — worn-out soccer cleats, dusty oscillating fans, empty water bottles — suggested that the operation had been going for months, a supposition Mexican officials did not deny. At that rate, hundreds of tons of marijuana worth hundreds of millions of dollars would have moved through this one tunnel during its life span.
Most likely somewhere nearby, in another tunnel, the flow continues. The next announcement and news tour may be only weeks away.
APNewsBreak: ICE officer arrested in pot smuggling
By AMANDA LEE MYERS Associated Press
Posted: 10/19/2011 12:23:38 PM MDT
Updated: 10/19/2011 06:49:33 PM MDT
PHOENIX—A deportation officer with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement led Arizona state police and federal agents on a high-speed desert chase in his government vehicle, throwing bundles of marijuana out of the window as he fled, the Department of Public Safety said Wednesday.
The deportation officer, identified as Jason Alistair Lowery, 34, had been under surveillance for more than month after a known smuggler who had been arrested gave authorities a tip about the officer in an effort to get lenient treatment, Department of Public Safety Officer Carrick Cook told The Associated Press.
In a criminal complaint filed late Wednesday against Lowery, who also used to be a Border Patrol agent, a Department of Homeland Security investigator wrote that he got further information about Lowery through a confidential informant on Oct. 4.
The informant, whose identity was protected, said that he or she was involved with Lowery and another man in a “rip” crew in which Lowery used his status in law enforcement to help steal marijuana from illegal immigrants, wrote Brian Gamberg-Bonilla, a special agent with the DPS’s Office of Investigations.
The informant agreed to call Lowery and arrange for him to pick up 500 pounds of pot in the desert on Tuesday, which is how authorities were able to follow him and begin to make their case, Gamberg-Bonilla wrote in the document.
DPS and federal agents tried to pull Lowery over after he picked up the marijuana with his unmarked ICE pickup truck, Cook said. Lowery then fled, leading agents on a 45-minute chase at speeds of up to 110 mph as he threw 10 of the 14 bundles of pot that he had in the truck out of the window, he said.
“He got pretty desperate,” Cook said.
The chase began in the Vekol Valley about 45 miles south of Phoenix and ended just south of Sacaton, about 20 miles as the crow flies northwest from where the chase began. It ended when Lowery’s truck rolled over and he gave himself up.
Lowery, who lives in the Phoenix suburb of Chandler, appeared in federal court in downtown Phoenix on Wednesday but did not address the court. He sat quietly awaiting the hearing and at one point looked up at the ceiling and repeatedly shook his head.
Prosecutor John Lopez argued that Lowery should be detained as his court case proceeds, saying that he poses a risk to the community and could flee the state. He also said that Lowery had a non-government-issued gun on him when he was arrested.
Federal Magistrate Michelle Burns set a hearing in the matter for Tuesday.
Lowery’s court-appointed attorney, Rebecca Felmly, declined to comment. Lowery’s wife, who identified herself as Trina Lowery, also declined to speak to The Associated Press.
Mexican drug cartels have infiltrated federal law enforcement agencies along the border for years, targeting hiring initiatives with their own people or recruiting officers.
Between 2003 and early 2010, 129 U.S. customs officers and Border Patrol agents were arrested on corruption charges, according to Tom Frost, the Department of Homeland Security’s assistant inspector general for investigations. The office was not immediately able to provide an updated figured to the AP.
“This is becoming all too common, in my opinion,” said Jim Dorcy, a retired Border Patrol agent who later investigated corruption among agents for the Justice Department. “Statistically it’s pretty rare, but you have to understand that as a law enforcement agency, it should be approaching zero.”
He said any amount of corruption in a police agency, let alone dozens of cases, destroys the public’s confidence and criminals’ respect. The heart of the problem lies in recent hiring booms in ICE and the Border Patrol in which the bar was lowered to meet hiring quotas, Dorcy said.
As for the corruption cases he investigated, Dorcy said it usually came down greed.
“They just want to make more money than the job offers, and they get offered a very tempting amount of money,” he said.
In one notable case, former Customs officer Margarita Crispin was arrested in El Paso, Texas, in 2007 and sentenced to 20 years in prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy to import more than 1,000 kilograms (2,204 pounds) of marijuana. Prosecutors alleged that she accepted more than $5 million in bribes over several years in exchange for letting smugglers’ vehicles pass through her checkpoint without inspection.
In a more recent case, former Border Patrol agent Michael Angelo Atondo was found guilty of trafficking marijuana in southwestern Arizona after fellow Border Patrol agents found him in a remote area along the border near San Luis—several miles outside of his patrol zone—with 745 pounds of marijuana in his vehicle.
Prosecutors say Atondo appeared to be a mole who infiltrated the agency to smuggle drugs. The 34-year-old will be sentenced Jan. 9.
In Lowery’s case, DPS believes that he was taking the 500 pounds of marijuana that he picked up in the desert to a man working for a drug cartel whose house served as the nexus of the drug distribution.
Lowery was booked into Pinal County jail on charges of smuggling and felony flight and was turned over to ICE custody Wednesday morning. The sheriff’s office also booked the man who was to receive the marijuana, identified as 33-year-old Joshua Duane Powell of Arizona City.
At Powell’s home, police found 14 rifles and guns in the trunk of his car, seven of which had been reported stolen, according to a DPS document.
The document also said that Powell had been out on a $25,000 bond stemming from a separate investigation last month in which multiple bulletproof vests, weapons, stolen night-vision equipment, hundreds of rounds of ammunition and various drugs were found in his home.
“Since his release only a few weeks ago, (Powell) has amassed a small arsenal of weapons and has proven to continue involvement in the illicit drug trade,” the document said.
Powell does not yet have an attorney and he has declined interview requests from the news media.
ICE spokesman Vinnie Picard said that Lowery worked as a deportation officer for the agency since August 2008 but declined to provide further information about Lowery.
“ICE is cooperating with federal and state authorities in this matter,” Picard said in a statement. “We hold our officers and agents to the highest levels of responsibility and are committed to supporting the agencies investigating this incident.”
Lowery worked as a deportation agent in ICE’s fugitive operations team, which goes after illegal immigrants who fail to leave the country after they’re ordered to be deported. Such officers carry weapons and have arrest powers.
Border Patrol spokesman Mario Escalante said Lowery also worked for that agency before going to ICE, but did not know for how long.